A mother stares at the screen of her phone. She has only minutes to herself before the toddler bursts through the bathroom door and needs her help, again. But she’s not scrolling down her Facebook feed, and she’s not dreaming on Pinterest. She’s scratching notes into a document on a story that she’s been slowly building up over for the last five years.
The story has her mind wandering while she washes her toddler’s hair. She listens to educational podcasts and Youtube videos instead of reality TV as she stirs a pot of dinner. She soaks in plot structures and pacing techniques, and character development so that in the last quiet hours of the night she might be able to weave it all together into something beautiful.
This is the life of a parent writer. We juggle, and dash, and work through our days so we can fulfill our divine roles as parents and wives/husbands and still fit in time to nurture this talent that brings us joy.
Writing a query letter can feel as daunting as drafting an entire book. How can you distill all the beautiful complexities of your book down into just a few sentences? Will my query sit at the bottom of a slush pile forever? How do I stand out?
I’m an acquisitions editor, which means I get to read queries and submissions daily. I’ve also been on the other side of submissions. As an author, I have received 72 rejection letters, 2 partial requests, 5 full requests and 2 book contracts from my own queries.
When I sent my first query in 2015, I remember feeling nervous at how I would handle the inevitable rejection letters. Someone told me to expect 100 “no’s” before I got a “yes”. I told myself that I wasn't going to quit querying my manuscript until I got 100+ no's. So, each time I got a rejection, I took a tally and felt excited that I was getting closer to my "yes".
I’ll admit, rejection still hurts even with a good perspective. But, querying is a numbers game. Perfectly publishable manuscripts are rejected every day. Don’t give up on your book before it reaches the right hands. Agents and editors are rooting for you to become their next favorite author!
As I honed my own query over the years, I realized that there was definitely a recipe to crafting a submission. I found a wonderful book called "From the Query to the Call" by Elana Johnson. If you are in the querying trenches, this e-book is a must-have. It taught me what editors and agents are looking for and how to simplify your novel into just two paragraphs.
Now that I’ve read so many different voices in a variety of query formats, it’s easier than ever for me to see what makes a query letter stand out in the slush pile. In this article, I'll give you formatting and content advice, then I have a few wonderful volunteers who submitted queries for critique. I'll go through these (already solidly written) critiques and point out what they did right and how they could make it even stronger.
Let's get started.
This week, we're hearing from author Molly Fennig about how parents can best help their children who aspire to publish their writing:
How have your parents supported you as a young author?
I wrote and (self-) published my first book my senior year of high school. My mom didn’t know about it until I was most of the way done and my dad didn’t know until I was right about to publish.
Although I did most of the writing on my own, there were things my parents did to help me as a writer (and others that I would recommend for parents of young writers).
For one, they read a lot to me growing and bought me books (including attaching their credit card to my kindle—amazing). We went to the bookstore together—some Saturdays we would go to this cafe called Bread and Chocolate (to get chocolate croissants) and then go to the bookstore next door.
My mom read all of my papers (if I asked her) for school, so I felt comfortable having her read my creative writing. The key is to give positive feedback to start and end, give negative feedback that is helpful, and know what your child wants from you (likely its support and encouragement at first and then help with edits or more technical issues rather than just praise).
I live in a college town, so I’m neighbors and friends with a few students. One of them learned I’m a writer and told me she was enrolled in a class that anyone was free to audit. Thanks to her, I’ve been taking a class from Brandon Sanderson. Yes, THE Brandon Sanderson. If you’re not sure who he is, it’s about time you got your hands on one of his books. Even if they’re not your cup of tea, you’ll still be appreciate the level of detail that goes into his worldbuilding.
Anyway, for most of the semester, Sanderson taught about worldbuilding, plot, and character, which are all well and good. But the last couple of weeks were focused on the business of writing--who the Big 5 are, things you should look out for in a publishing contract, royalty rates, and how to get an agent--or if you even should. This business info was exactly what I needed, and since I’m looking to get myself an agent this year, I was especially grateful to hear the facts about them. As a #1 New York Times Bestselling author with a handful of different series in the works at any given time, Sanderson knows a thing or two about the industry and what it takes to navigate a book deal, so I took furious notes on the topic.
Why get an agent at all? They’re supposed to give authors a leg up on their way to traditional publishing, but a writer can approach acquisitions editors and make it through the slush pile without one, and they do it all the time nowadays! Our writing group has been just fine without them thus far: Rachel Huffmire got her foot in the door, traditionally publishing “Shattered Snow” without an agent by pitching it at a writing conference. Bree Moore, the president of our writing group, is self-published (and doing a marvelous job of it, by the way), so she doesn’t need an agent to represent her interests to a third party.
If you can go without an agent, shouldn’t you?
The time comes with every manuscript when you need to share it with someone else before publishing it. That someone could be your spouse, best friend, writing group, beta reader, a pitch with an editor or agent, or a first chapter contest judge. There will be times when one of these critique partners makes a suggestion that doesn't sit well with you. You'll be left with a bucket of insecurity, wondering whether to make changes based on the suggestions or to keep the manuscript as-is. It can be especially crippling when the person commenting is close to you, like a family member, or someone you perceive as having authority in the writing profession, like an editor or already-published author.
Receiving critiques is difficult. No one enjoys hearing they have more work to do, especially after doing something that took a lot of work. But we all have something to learn and improve on, whether it's our first manuscript or our fifteenth, whether we are published or not.
We don't improve when we ignore everything our critique partners tell us. They can be incredibly valuable, teaching us more than we could ever learn otherwise. Even unhelpful comments can teach us things like who isn't our niche reader, or if a part of the story is not quite right (even if their wrong about why). Get multiple critique partners (or, better yet, a writing group), and take their comments with a fat grain of salt.
This article will discuss what makes a critique “wrong” or unhelpful, what to do when you realize a critique isn't right for you, how to respond to a critique partner who frequently gives unhelpful feedback, and how know when to follow a critique.
I’m just about the most outlying example of balancing a home life and a writing career.
I have nine children. Rachel Huffmire, one of the founders of Writing Through Brambles, grew up in a situation of nine children and can probably tell you a lot about what that means for a family—it is not a small task managing the schedules, needs, and resources associated with a family of this size.
Add to it that I’ve chosen to publish independently. Any successful indie author will give you a long lecture about the importance of publishing fast. Fast releases are integral to the indie author’s marketing model. You keep an audience by making sure there are no more than 90 days between each release. Part of this has to do with the natural drop-off in audience interest and part of it has to do with Amazon algorithms. Because you are entirely on your own and your writing basically IS your marketing, this is important if you want to make a living. (Eventually. I’m not quite there yet. You don’t tend to get much for your work until you’ve got three books out in a series.)
Then, factor in the fact I’m publishing adult fantasy. Adult fantasy audiences want a high word count, 100,000 words or higher, or they feel a bit cheated. This makes sense. In order to have a satisfying experience with worldbuilding, plot, and character development, an adult audience wants a long book. This is a bit counter-intuitive for authors dealing with agents and traditional publishing houses. A long word count is a risk of investment for a big publisher, especially when dealing with a new author. So when you’re querying agents, you’re told to keep your word-count tightly around 90,000-100,000 for full-length, epic fantasy. And even then, expect to really sell it to have them take a risk on a word-count that high (printing costs).
It’s different in the indie world. More words in a book = a higher number of kindle unlimited page reads after an initial reading investment in your story and thus better profits. Like I said, what the epic fantasy audience actually wants is bigger books.
All this adds up to my task: trying to make it as an indie author in my chosen genre, with the natural workload I have as a mother of nine = nearly impossible.
How do I do it?
Simply put, it’s two things that often elicit groans and arguments from authors: outlines and word counts.
I know some will read this and say “nooooo”. No outlines. No word counts.
So, let me explain how this works for me. I’m actually the last person this should work for, because I’m a pantser extreme. I feel my writing. I’m not formulaic, I don’t stick easily to genre niches and I am an emotional writer.
Does it shock anyone else how deeply connected our mental and emotional health is to our writing productivity? I have loved the recent acknowledgement that writer's block is not a sign of failure, but of a potential imbalance in a writer's life that can be addressed. I discovered a writing practice a couple of years back in a book called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This book focuses on embracing the inner creative and really nurturing it by putting yourself and your creative projects first, taking yourself on creative dates, and by using a Stream of Consciousness exercise to daily clear your mind. Though I have yet to follow her advice to its full extent, I have used her Stream of Consciousness exercise regularly. It is a wonderful tool to loosen up the brain, reveal and address emotional issues that clog your creative flow, and make room for your creativity to break through at it’s finest. I would suggest reading her book, and hearing it from her own words, but in this article I will break down how to do the exercise, and why it is so effective.
Have you ever finished a book and realized it was 2 AM? Then, spent the rest of your week playing out the character's happily-ever-after because you're just not willing to let them go yet? Finally, desperate to share your experience, you tried to tell someone the plot and felt like you just couldn't do it justice?
Yeah--me neither (*shifty eyes).
What is it about some books that transport us into an entirely new world? How do we write like that?
A few months ago, I wrote an article on writing beautifully, but today I'm going to go a step further. This mini workshop will help you see how to envelope your reader into your world so completely that they won't be tempted to use that cute new bookmark they bought between your pages. Whether your reader is looking for escape or experience, writing a transportive novel will ensure that they get what they're looking for.
Last week Bree talked about how plotting can help organize your thoughts into something you can run with, something that won’t leave you stuck with writer’s block as often as writing by the seat of your pants. I definitely think that’s true, but as a plotter I still get stuck an awful lot. I get stuck so often that when I went to LTUE last month and saw a class called “Obsessive Outlining” taught by M. A. Nichols in the program, I jumped at the chance to see what I could learn there.
I’m so glad I went.
Maybe it’s just because I’m an obsessive person when it comes to finding the right way to do things, but this class made so much sense to me! Before, I would plot as much as I thought I could, coming up with a basic outline and saying what had to happen where. I tried hard to get my thoughts in order before I started writing, but it never got me very far. I would write a story out to the end, wonder what was wrong, finally identify the problems, rewrite, make new problems, and start all over again, keeping only a little of what I had from the previous draft. So many words down the drain! But since Nichols started using this process, she says she’s had to cut out fewer and fewer words from her manuscripts, which sounds like a dream come true.
Laundry is pretty much the bane of every mother's existence. Doesn't seem to matter how many kids you have, clothes multiply like rabbits and pretty soon you're buried. The trick for laundry, I've found, is two-fold: minimize how many clothes you and your kids have (so you can't go much longer than a week without washing), and have a process or routine for getting it done.
You didn't come here for laundry tips, though. You came for writing tips! Lucky for you, laundry and writing have something in common: both are more efficient and a lot less painful when you get more organized! And one way to get more organized with your writing is to try plotting.
I used to be a hardcore pantser. A pantser is a writer that follows the whimsy of their muse to finish a story. Instead of planning everything out, they barrel (or wander) ahead, writing “by the seat of their pants.” Hence the term, “pantser.”
Pantsing was fun. I thought it was the best way to write, waiting for the muse to strike and writing in a fit of passion and emotion. I only wrote when conditions were perfect. When I scheduled writing time for myself, I often found my muse elusive and blamed the infamous condition known as writer's block for my lack of words.
Later, when I revised, I couldn't really tell the difference between times when I'd written full of passion and times when I had forced the words. Progress was slow. My plot meandered. My characters seemed unmotivated and disjointed. I became convinced there had to be a more efficient way to write without sacrificing quality or enjoyment, but I wasn't sure where to look.
Enter plotting. Plotters create an outline before they start writing. This often includes character arcs, the plot, world building, setting, etc. They name characters and do as much research as possible before diving in.
My realization of the magic of plotting was gradual. I heard about plotting at writing conferences I attended, but thought it would suck the joy from writing, so I avoided it as much as I could. Until I decided to use NaNoWriMo to write the sequel to Woven and realized I needed to try something different to succeed in writing 50,000+ words in a month.
As a homeschooling mom with five kids under seven and two businesses, my writing time is limited. I fight for most of the time I get. Those minutes are precious. I can't afford to spend them writing a sentence, thinking what I want to have happen next, and writing the next sentence, or being subject to my unreliable muse from day to day. I love it when a passage flies out of my fingers, but writing nirvana is rare. I needed to try something different: I needed a plan.
You see, Woven took me 3.5 years to write, edit, and publish. I had no outline until close to the end when things got really confusing and I had a deadline to finish by. I had an outline for maybe a third of the book. The book prior to that took me seven years, and I never had an outline.
I started the sequel to Woven during NaNoWriMo 2017. The two months prior I outlined the entire book. The first draft of Bound was finished by January 2018. Only three months! I revised, edited, and released Bound by September. Less than one year.
I'm currently writing a paranormal/urban fantasy trilogy, preparing to rapid release the entire trilogy later this year. I wrote the first book in two and a half months. Then I had a baby and got derailed, understandably. Still, the second book is halfway done. I'm well on my way to taking less than a year to finish THREE entire books. I had a full outline for the first book, a partial outline for the second, and I'm still working out the third. Writing the first book took far less time and went so much easier than writing the second has been, but I've learned my lesson and finally finished plotting the second book.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.